Posted by: sean | December 28, 2011

Darfur and Syria

Sudanese General al-Dabi, head of Arab League observer mission in Syria (Reuters)

Many are up in arms after the remarks by Sudanese head of the Arab League’s observer mission to Syria, General al-Dabi:

“Some places looked a bit of a mess but there was nothing frightening,” Sudanese General [Mohamad Ahmad] Mustafa Dabi, chief of the monitoring contingent, told Reuters by telephone from Damascus.

“The situation seemed reassuring so far,” he said on Wednesday after his team’s first foray into the city of one million people, the epicenter of revolt against Assad.

“But remember, this was only the first day and it will need investigation. We have 20 people who will be there for a long time,” Dabi said.

A recent report in Foreign Policy calls al-Dabi “the world’s worst human rights observer.” While I agree that this likely stinks of either a voluntary whitewash or an example of how the observers are being stage managed by the Syrian regime, I’m surprised that people are surprised. What does one expect from an Arab League mission headed by a loyalist of President Omar al-Bashir, currently wanted on charges of genocide and crimes against humanity?

After all, there is some irony in the Arab world being aghast at al-Dabi’s comments after it generally either remained silent or actively supported Omar al-Bashir’s regime in Khartoum when the Sudanese government was doing its best to ethnically cleanse Darfur.

To give us an idea of who al-Dabi is, here are some references to him in the literature on Darfur.

From Julie Flint and Alex De Waal’s Darfur: A New History of a Long War (pp. 62-3):

President Bashir dispatched his deputy chief of staff for operations, a retired general named Mohamed Ahmad al Dabi, to ‘restore calm’. Putting on his khaki uniform again al Dabi arrived [in Dar Masalit, Darfur] on 9 February [1999] with fill personal authority from the president, two helicopter gunships and a company of 120 soldiers. He demanded an immediate end to the violence. ‘If anyone fires a shot, my reaction will be very hard against the man who fired the bullet and the leader of the group.’ He ordered the gunship pilots to put on a display of firepower in front of tribal leaders – ‘to show them what the helicopters could do’.

General al Dabi stayed four and a half months in Geneina. Accounts of what happened during his tenure diverge sharply. Governor Ibrahim Yahya describes the period as ‘the beginning of the organization of the Janjiwid’, with militia leaders like Hamid Dawai and Shineibat receiving money from the government for the first time. ‘The army would search and disarm villages, and two days later the Janjawiid would go on. They would attack and loot from 6 a.m. to 2 p.m., only ten minutes away from the army. By this process all of Dar Masalit was burned.’

[…] General al Dabi tells a very different story. He says he arrived to find Dar Masalit in chaos, with the Arabs angry at the killing of their leaders and what they saw as the governor’s bias. The state government lacked resources and could not tackle the root causes of the crisis, which he identified as lack of water for the nomads’ herds. With a firm hand, undisputed authority and money from Khartoum to pay expenses for the leaders on both sides, al Dabi insists that he brought the crisis under control. He gave fuel for the state government’s cars, fug wells and repaired reservoirs. He pressed both Arabs and Masalit for a ceasefire and then a full tribal reconciliation conference — threatening them with live ammunition when they dragged their feet. Conference documents enumerated 292 Masalit and 7 Arabs killed — all of them in January and early February. Before leaving at the end of the June, al Dabi instituted a council of advisers for the sultan, with equal representation of Masalit and Arabs. ‘I was very proud of the time I spent in Geneina’, he said.

From M. W. Daly’s Darfur’s Sorrow (p. 262):

General Muhammad Ahmad al-Dabi was sent to the region [Dar Masalit] in February 1999, ostensibly to restore order but in fact to put down Masalit resistance, which was now publicly referred to as treasonous complicity with the SPLA [Sudan People’s Liberation Army]. His personal militia, moved from Kordofan to southern Darfur, trained local Arabs for the government’s “popular defense forces” in the west. Since non-Arabs were not allowed to enlist, these became in effect another local militia, which the Masalit called janjawid, a term that eventually merged all the Arab militias, whether local or of Chadian, Libyan, or other origins, under one malevolent rubric. Thousands of Masalit were killed and tens of thousands put to flight.

In their book, Darfur: The Long Road to Disaster, Burr and Collins speak of this same period without mentioning al-Dabi by name (p. 287):

To compound the marginalization and humiliation of the zurug, new governors were appointed who were Arabs from the awlad al-bahar in Khartoum, or Arabs from Chad and not from the traditional families from Darfur. They even replaced the hereditary sultan of Dar Masalit and stripped the Masalit chiefs of their traditional authority which was unceremoniously handed to the Arab amirs giving them the power to seize Masalit land. When the Masalit protested, General Hassan Hamadein replaced the civilian governor, Mohamed Ahmad Fadl, and promptly placed their sultanate under military rule. He imprisoned and tortured prominent members of the community as Masalit drifted into a guerrilla war until January 1999 when government troops, helicopters, and Arab militias crushed the Masalit insurgents killing over 2,000 and displacing 100,000, 40,000 of whom fled to Chad.

Given the history of the Sudanese regime in general and General al-Dabi in particular, can anyone really be that surprised that he sees the situation in Homs as “nothing frightening”?

In the end, though, I suspect that it will be al-Dabi’s ties to Qatar that might be the most important factor as to what sort of results his observer mission brings back:

Mr. Dabi, 63, has flown to Damascus to lead about 150 observers assessing whether Syria is ending a nine-month crackdown on protests, the first foreign intervention on the ground in unrest that the UN says has seen 5,000 people killed.

He became head of Sudan’s military intelligence in 1989, the day Mr. Bashir took power in a coup, and went on to head Sudan’s foreign spy agency and serve as deputy chief of staff for military operations from 1996-99.

He has held at least four positions related to Darfur , including coordinator between Khartoum and international peacekeepers sent in after rebels complaining of political and economic neglect took up arms in the remote western region.

He also served as Sudan’s ambassador from 1999-2004 in Qatar, the country which has taken the lead in shaping the Arab League’s unusually tough response to Syria.


  1. […] to Syria provided a “reassuring” first impression of the situation observed. Yet one commentator calls him   “the world’s worst human rights observer . . .   likely stinks of either a […]

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